From the time she was 8 years old, putting a pot on the stove, Crystal De Luna-Bogan knew she never wanted to do anything else but cook. She saw how food brings people together. After high school, she jumped into culinary school and wanted to grasp everything. Growing up in a Mexican household in Los Angeles, food exploration wasn’t part of her upbringing. She spread her culinary wings (and paid her dues) in kitchens in Southern California before becoming a private chef and discovering her style of cooking to be high-end comfort food. Crystal and Joseph Bogan, her now-husband of 10 years, moved to Nashville and created a cult-like following for their business, The Grilled Cheeserie. This Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef is behind Nashville’s favorite food truck and melt shop that is incorporating local ingredients and complex flavor profiles in their grilled cheeses. Who knew this simple dish could draw crowds of people willing to wait in a line for this savory treat? Meet our newest FACE of Nashville, Crystal De Luna-Bogan.
Why shift your focus to grilled cheese?
When I was working as a private chef in Santa Monica, I was pushed in the local food scene. This was the first time I wasn’t working for someone else, so I got to create my own style. I would source the food locally and create seasonal comfort food. So my style become comfort food with high-end local ingredients. I would go to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market without a budget and without a plan. I would let myself be inspired by whatever was seasonal.
When we moved to Nashville, we began conceptualizing the food truck and asked ourselves what is a comfort food we can change seasonally. We wanted a nostalgic comfort food that would stay the same in concept, be able to source ingredients locally and be able to change the inside ingredients per season, hence our seasonally inspired, locally sourced reference we always make to our brand.
I have always been a huge cheese nerd. When I was working at Napa Rose in The Grand California Hotel (Disney) in Anaheim, California, I was too young to drink the wine and gravitated towards the cheese program. Cheese was such a natural choice for the concept. Seven years later, here we are.
Was opening a brick-and-mortar location always the goal?
When I took the private chef job, it was hard not to work in a restaurant, but I saw where I could go in the restaurant industry and that person looked off-balance, especially for a woman in a male-dominated industry. I have always liked an unconventional work environment. The food truck is always interesting and never the same. I was hesitant with the restaurants. We partnered with Fresh Hospitality, and this gave us the opportunity to introduce our concept to the brick-and-mortar world with seasoned professionals. I wanted to have a council of people to collaborate with and to help me grow this business. I will never pretend I know everything. I think that has been our greatest success. We ask for help and collaborate in areas where we are lacking. I think that is strong trait of women-owned businesses. I also think that is the Nashville spirit. If you succeed, you are going to take me with you in your wave of success.
Related: Change is Afoot in Hillsboro Village
What do you think is behind The Grilled Cheeserie’s continued popularity?
Before we opened, we weren’t sure if anyone would care. We used social media to communicate with our customers, and before we opened the day after Thanksgiving seven years ago, we had 1,000 Twitter followers. Actually having to do it was the hard part. I realized I didn’t know how to serve 200 people — and we made mistakes. But we reminded people there is a small business behind this hyped-up thing, and we asked for their forgiveness as we figured out what we were doing. This only works when you communicate with customers. They gave us such grace in the beginning and have only continued supporting us. It quickly became bigger than just a sandwich. I have always felt so grateful and think people who know me can sense that.
We are continuing to learn and evolve. There is no template on how to start and run this business. My husband is more than my equal partner, he is the reason we make money. He handles the numbers and business, and our brains work so differently. We can completely clash or create so well together. While he is more factual, I am more feelings and emotions.
What are the most popular items?
The Pimento Mac and tomato soup outsell everything, every day. We featured it on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” four years ago — it is a sandwich that represents the South, and we have accepted that as our “thing.”
The Milkshake Bar was the secret sleeper. I never realized it was going to be such a big deal. I have always loved the idea of a milkshake bar. A milkshake can be a composed dessert with textures and flavors. It is also so nostalgic and comforting. The highest seller is the chocolate, but a close second is the hopscotch. The Milk Shake of the Moment is a local favorite. We love partnering with local businesses and involving our community. In January, we are collaborating with Slim & Husky’s to make a cinnamon roll milkshake. (You heard it here, first!)
What goals do you have for yourself/your business in the next five years?
We are opening two additional restaurants next year. We are also changing the formats of the restaurants. At The Milkshake Bar, you can see the shakes being made. We are taking that approach and applying it to the sandwich making. We want our customers to watch the sandwiches being made. We are so proud of the way we prep — it is beautiful. We are also getting rid of gas lines and using smarter technology (we will be able to cook sandwiches in 53 seconds). We are moving more to the Chipotle-style model, with the fun and energy of a soda shop. We have learned so much from the Hillsboro Village restaurant and will be making these changes in Franklin, then will also apply them to the space in East Nashville, which will have the same aesthetic as the original location thanks to our local community of makers like Red Rocks Tile, Southern Lights Electric, Holler Design and Isle of Printing.
What is one ingredient we can always find in your kitchen?
Tajin, a Mexican chili-lime spice. I always have it in my purse, just in case. We also spice our pepitas for our citrus spinach salad with this magical spice.
What restaurant is at the top of your must-try list?
I have been waiting for Kuchnia & Keller! It is run by a husband-and-wife team, which I think is the secret sauce.
A favorite is Mas Tacos. I am such a fan how Teresa is growing on her own terms and unapologetically setting the standard for her quick-service business. She is so inspiring.
Is there a hidden culinary gem in Nashville that we must know about?
K&S World Market
What is the best piece of advice you have received and from whom?
I don’t want to misquote Margot McCormack, but she always tells me something I know I need to let soak in. She always does what feels right to her. She has always been authentic, and I am so fortunate to know that she cares. I advocate for local food, and she ensures I feel good about it and reminds me that it will pay off.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Iced coffee, music and a stress bath (with a lot of epsom salt and eucalyptus oil, which I believe is a magic stress-relieving oil. I also carry a vial in my purse — there are a lot of things in my purse at any given time …)
Thank you to Crystal De Luna-Bogan for answering all of our questions. A special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos of Crystal!
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